Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints: 2020 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-5) at New Orleans Saints (13-4)

This was the toughest call of the week for me and the only one of the four games I didn’t lock in with a bet earlier this week. There is a lot of history that suggests Tom Brady and the Buccaneers should have the edge over Drew Brees and the Saints. Not only does Brady have the obvious edge in post-season success, 31-11 with 9 Super Bowl appearances vs. 9-8 with 1 appearance, but Brady almost always plays his best in these big games against tough opponents, particularly when his team is doubted and not expected to win.

Overall in his career, Brady is 54-26 ATS as an underdog or a favorite of less than 2.5 and he’s 42-11 ATS against teams with a better record than his, including an incredible 40-13 straight up record in those games. As an underdog, Brady is 22-6 ATS in games against teams with a better record than his, pulling the straight up upset in 19 of 28 games. Most of that was with Bill Belichick and the Patriots, but the Buccaneers did go 2-1 ATS as underdogs this year.

That one loss was week 1 against the Saints in New Orleans, when the Saints won 34-23 as 3.5-point favorites, but that was the Buccaneers’ first game of the season and they actually won the first down rate battle by +6.31%, with the Saints largely winning because of a +3 turnover margin and a return touchdown, which is not predictive week-to-week. The Saints beat the Buccaneers more convincingly week 9, winning the game 38-3 and the first down rate battle by +9.96%, but that game looks like an outlier for two teams that were largely equal this season overall, with the Saints ranking 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.59% and the Buccaneers ranking 3rd at +4.45%. 

All that being said, we’re not getting the line value needed to bet the Buccaneers confidently, especially with Tom Brady now being 43 and away from New England, facing off with a team that has played him well this season. The Buccaneers are only field goal underdogs, which is exactly where I have them calculated, with the Saints having slight homefield advantage with some fans in the stands and having a slight edge on the field as well. Even though these two teams were about even this season, the Saints did that at much less than 100% throughout due to injury. 

Brees (4 games missed), feature back Alvin Kamara (1 game), top wide receiver Michael Thomas (9 games), stud left tackle Terron Armstead (2 games), talented defensive linemen Marcus Davenport (5 games), Trey Hendrickson (1 game), and David Onyemata (1 game), stud safety Marcus Williams (2 games), and starting cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins (3 games) and Marshon Lattimore (2 games), among other minor players, all missed time with injury this season and are expected to play this week. 

The Saints entered the season atop my roster rankings and are only slightly behind the Packers right now, ahead about 1.5 points ahead of the Buccaneers. I’m taking the Buccaneers for pick ‘em purposes purely because of Brady’s history in these kinds of games, but I wouldn’t bet them at this number. If the line moves off of 3, I would reconsider, as a field goal Saints win is probably the most likely outcome of this game, but this is a low confidence pick for now.

New Orleans Saints 27 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 26

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3

Confidence: Low

Chicago Bears at New Orleans Saints: 2020 NFC Wild Card Round Pick

Chicago Bears (8-8) at New Orleans Saints (12-4)

Coming into the season, the Saints ranked a clear #1 in my roster rankings and were my pre-season Super Bowl pick (over Baltimore). The Saints weren’t a consistently dominant team this season, but they consistently played well overall, despite missing various key players with injury at different points in the season. They went 12-4 and finished 3rd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.34%, even though quarterback Drew Brees (4 games missed), feature backs Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray (1 game missed each), top wide receiver Michael Thomas (9 games), stud left tackle Terron Armstead (2 games), talented defensive linemen Marcus Davenport (5 games) and David Onyemata (1 game), stud safety Marcus Williams (2 games), and cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Marshon Lattimore, among other minor players, all missed time with injury.

All of the aforementioned players are expected to be available in this one. The Saints aren’t at full strength, but they’re much closer to it than they were for most of the season and they’re closer to it than most teams at this point in the season. They aren’t the #1 team in my roster rankings, but they’re only slightly behind Green Bay, with their most notable absence, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, causing them to fall slightly behind the Packers. They should be considered the favorite to win the Super Bowl of any of the wild card weekend teams, as long as they continue staying reasonably healthy.

Making matters even better for the Saints, they have a relatively easy first round matchup, with the 8-8 Bears coming to town. In schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Bears are about as you’d expect from an 8-8 team, ranking 13th at +0.17%, but, unlike the Saints who are balanced on both sides of the ball, ranking 8th in first down rate over expected and 6th in first down rate allowed over expected, the Bears are heavily reliant on their defense, which ranks 7th in first down rate allowed over expected at -2.30%, while their offense ranks just 26th in first down rate over expected at -2.12%

That’s a concern because defensive performance is much less predictive and predictable week-to-week than offensive performance. The Bears also have injury concerns on defense, most notably the potential absence of stud linebacker Roquan Smith, who has been a big part of their defensive success this season. The Bears’ offense has been better in recent weeks with Mitch Trubisky under center, but he’s struggled in their only two games against competent defenses over that stretch, both double digit losses to the Packers, while his other games have come against defenses ranked 26th (Vikings), 29th (Jaguars), 30th (Texans), and 32nd (Lions) in first down rate allowed over expected. 

Trubisky did lead the Bears to 30+ points in each of those 4 games, but he’s yet to prove he’s anything more than an upgrade over Nick Foles, which isn’t saying much. Of all of the playoff qualifiers, I have the Bears ranked last in my roster rankings, coming in about a half point below average overall. I have the Saints with a 9.5 point advantage, which gives us a calculated line of New Orleans -11, with the Saints at least having some fans in advantage for this matchup. Unfortunately, this line is up to New Orleans -10, with the public recognizing how lopsided this matchup is, but the Saints should still be the pick for pick ‘em purposes, even if there isn’t enough value here for the Saints to be worth betting.

New Orleans Saints 27 Chicago Bears 15

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -10

Confidence: Low

New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers: 2020 Week 17 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (11-4) at Carolina Panthers (5-10)

I have been expecting to bet on the Saints this week, but things got thrown into flux on Saturday when it was announced that not only Alvin Kamara, but the Saints’ entire running back room will be out due to COVID protocols, in a situation reminiscent of the Broncos playing without quarterbacks and the Browns playing without their top-4 wide receivers earlier this season. Both of those teams not only lost, but failed to cover. I think this is a different situation though, for a couple reasons.

For one, running back is one of the more replaceable positions. On top of that, the Saints have players at other positions, wide receiver Ty Montgomery and quarterback Taysom Hill, who have the versatility to move to running back if needed. And perhaps more important, the Saints are a much more complete and talented team than the Broncos or Browns were. The pre-season #1 team in my roster rankings, the Saints haven’t been quite as dominant as expected, but that is largely due to the fact that they have been dealing with key injury absences all season. 

Despite that, they rank 2nd in the league with a +4.47% schedule adjusted first down rate differential and are one of two teams, along with the Buccaneers, to rank in the top-10 both on offense in first down rate (4th) and on defense in first down rate allowed (7th). They started 1-2, but have won 10 of 12 games since, as they typically do after slow starts, going 4-17-1 ATS since 2010 in weeks 1 and 2 and 93-58-7 ATS in week 3-17. They’ll be more depleted this week than usual, but I still have them 7th in my roster rankings with Montgomery and Hill as their running backs and I still have this line calculated at New Orleans -9, shifted down from -10.5 earlier this week. 

The oddsmakers’ line has shifted appropriately, going from -6.5 to -5, but it was undervalued to begin with. The Panthers have been competitive in most of their games, with 11 games decided by one score or less, including 8 of their 10 losses, despite a relatively tough schedule, and they rank 17th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -0.30%, but they’ve largely overachieved their talent level this season and are further depleted by missing key players in this matchup. Already without feature back Christian McCaffrey and left tackle Russell Okung on offense, the Panthers will also be without McCaffrey’s backup Mike Davis, who has played well as the feature back in McCaffrey’s absence, and they’ll be without their top defensive player Brian Burns. 

Overall, I have the Panthers 25th in my roster rankings, without the players they are missing, and I wouldn’t expect them to be that competitive this week with a Saints team that is still one of the better teams in the league, even without some key absent players. I’m not as confident in the Saints as I would have been earlier this week at -6.5 when the Saints still had their running backs, but at -5, the Saints are still worth a bet.

New Orleans Saints 24 Carolina Panthers 16

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -5

Confidence: Medium

Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints: 2020 Week 16 NFL Pick

Minnesota Vikings (6-8) at New Orleans Saints (10-4)

One interesting metric that I look at is called variance, which measures the variance in a team’s performance from week-to-week. The Saints have been among the league leaders in this metric this year, ranking 4th, meaning they’ve been one of the least consistent teams in the league week-to-week. Sometimes this is due to sheer randomness and there isn’t a good explanation for it (like the 2nd ranked New England Patriots), but the most common reason for a team being inconsistent week-to-week is injuries, as having several key players in and out of the lineup over the course of a season will lead to significant week-to-week variance in performance.

That has been the case for the Saints, who have been among the most injury prone teams in the league this season, with key players on both sides of the ball both missing time, but also returning at various points in the season. The Saints are probably the best team in the league when everyone is at full strength (they were the pre-season #1 in my roster rankings), so, even with some key injuries, they’ve managed to go 10-4, but their play has slipped a little bit in recent weeks, resulting in back-to-back losses after a 10-2 start.

In some ways, both losses were understandable and slightly excusable. The first loss came in a game in which the Saints were facing an unfamiliar rookie quarterback with no pre-season tape on him and it came before a much bigger game against the Chiefs, so it was understandable they would be caught off guard, while the second loss came against a Chiefs team that is currently favored to win the Super Bowl, so losing to them isn’t a big deal, and both losses did come by only a field goal. However, both games required a borderline garbage time touchdown by the Saints to cut the deficit to 3 and the Saints lost the first down rate battle by a combined 4.38% in those games. 

Those two losses dropped the Saints to 6th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +2.57% and their injury situation is going in the wrong direction as well. Drew Brees has returned, but he might not be fully 100% and, at less than 100%, he isn’t a big upgrade over Taysom Hill, while the Saints have key players on both sides of the ball that are out that were not out when Hill was starting, most notably #1 wide receiver Michael Thomas and stud safety Marcus Williams. Overall, they’ve fallen to 9th in my roster rankings, which certainly isn’t bad, but they’re not the dominant team they looked to be a few weeks ago. 

With that in mind, I think we’re getting a little bit of line value with the visitors, with the Vikings coming in as 7-point underdogs. The Vikings are also a little underrated themselves. They aren’t nearly as good without top linebacker Eric Kendricks, who is once again out on defense, but their 7th ranked schedule adjusted first down rate differential (+2.31%) is significantly better than their record and is only slightly behind the Saints.

The metrics the Vikings have struggled in are metrics that are much less predictable week-to-week, like their net -15.55% fourth down conversion rate, their -19.19% net field goal conversion percentage, their 41.18% fumble recovery rate (28th in the NFL), their 2.99% interception rate (28th in the NFL) that is significantly higher than quarterback Kirk Cousins’ average from the past 5 seasons (1.90%), and their -4 return touchdown margin. I don’t want to bet on the Vikings without Kendricks, especially since the better team usually covers on a short week (favorites of 6+ cover at a 62.8% rate when both teams have had 4 days of rest or fewer), but the Vikings should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

New Orleans Saints 33 Minnesota Vikings 28

Pick against the spread: Minnesota +7

Confidence: Low

Kansas City Chiefs at New Orleans Saints: 2020 Week 15 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (12-1) at New Orleans Saints (10-3)

The Saints lost last week in big upset fashion, losing as 8-point road favorites in Philadelphia, ending a 9 game winning streak in the process. I don’t really hold that against them though, as the Eagles have a solid defense and got better quarterback play from new starter Jalen Hurts, while the Saints were caught off guard, facing a sub-.500 team with an unfamiliar quarterback under center, the game before this huge game against the defending Super Bowl champs. The Saints should be much more focused this week and will likely prove last week was largely a fluke, as is usually the case after big upsets like that, as teams cover at a 60.5% rate historically after a loss as road favorites of 7 points or more.

Even with last week’s loss included, the Saints still sit at 10-3 and have really rebounded from their slow 1-2 start, as they typically do, going 4-17-1 ATS since 2010 in weeks 1 and 2 and 91-58-7 ATS in week 3-17. Making that even more impressive is the fact that they really haven’t been healthy all season. They lost #1 wide receiver Michael Thomas in week 1, followed shortly after by some defensive starters and they haven’t been at full strength since.

Their defensive starters later returned and the Saints’ defense has been on fire since, while Thomas returned as well a few weeks later, but in his first game back, quarterback Drew Brees got hurt and went on to miss the next 4 and a half games. Brees is back this week, but, at the same time, they will be without Thomas again, as the fates seem to be coinciding to make sure one of the most accomplished pass catching duos in the league barely gets to play together this season.

Even with Thomas out, I still like the Saints’ bounce back chances, as they really haven’t been healthy all season and have still managed to be very effective, not just in the win/loss column, but also ranking 3rd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +3.43%. That lines up with my roster rankings, which have the Saints ranked 4th even without Thomas. At their best, the Saints are probably the best team in the league and, though we may never actually see them at full strength, they still have enough talent on both sides of the ball to still be one of the top teams in the league, even when missing key players.

The Chiefs are obviously a high level team, but even they shouldn’t be getting a field goal on the road in New Orleans, as these two teams aren’t far apart in my rankings, even with the Saints missing Thomas. The Saints have minimal homefield advantage this season with limited attendance in the stands, but, even still, I have this line calculated at New Orleans -1, so we’re getting great line value with the Saints. 

I normally don’t pick against the Chiefs unless I have a good reason to (28-20-2 ATS with Patrick Mahomes), but you could say the same thing about picking against the Saints after the first few weeks of the season, so I have no concerns betting big against the Chiefs this week. In fact, without a better option, this is going to be my Pick of the Week. The money line at +140 is also a smart play as this line is really off and should probably favor the Saints, even if only a little bit.

New Orleans Saints 35 Kansas City Chiefs 33 Upset Pick +140

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +3

Confidence: Pick of the Week

New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles: 2020 Week 14 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (10-2) at Philadelphia Eagles (3-8-1)

It may seem crazy, but there are reasons to like the Eagles this week and I strongly considered betting on them as home underdogs of a touchdown against the Saints. The Eagles’ offensive struggles have been well documented this season, but what’s been lost in that is that their defense has played pretty well, ranking 9th in first down rate allowed over expected and, while their offensive issues go beyond their quarterback play, it’s hard to imagine their offense being worse with Jalen Hurts under center than Carson Wentz, given how much Wentz has regressed and struggled this year. Perhaps the rookie Hurts can give this offense somewhat of a spark, especially in his debut against a team that hardly has any professional tape on him in this offense.

The Saints have been a juggernaut this season, going on their annual run (91-57-7 ATS in weeks 3-17 since 2010) and winning 9 straight since their 1-2 start, including 3 straight with backup quarterback Taysom Hill in the lineup. Their wins with Hill in the lineup have been much more defensive led though and this could easily be a relatively low scoring defensive battle, in which case having a full touchdown of cushion with the home team would be very attractive. 

This is also an obvious look ahead spot for the Saints, with a big home game against the Chiefs on deck. Road favorites are just 52-83 ATS before being home underdogs since 2008 and, even if the Saints aren’t home underdogs next week (+3 currently on the early line), the logic still holds that the Saints might not be fully focused for a 3-8-1 team with a defending champs on deck and, as a result, that they could easily be caught off guard by a quarterback who they’ve hardly seen play at the NFL level. We’re not getting quite enough line value with the Eagles to bet money against this Saints juggernaut, but they should be the right side.

Update: This line has moved to up 8, so I’m going to place a small wager on the Eagles. My calculated line is New Orleans -6.5, so we’re getting decent line value with the Eagles, but, more importantly, the Saints are in a tough spot, facing an unfamiliar quarterback, with a much tougher matchup on deck. This should be a close defensive matchup and, barring return touchdowns or something else strange, I would expect a one score game. 

New Orleans Saints 19 Philadelphia Eagles 14

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia +8

Confidence: Medium

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: 2020 Week 13 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (9-2) at Atlanta Falcons (4-7)

When these two teams met a couple weeks ago in New Orleans, the Saints won pretty easily by score of 24-9. Saints head coach Sean Payton was credited for his decision to start hybrid player Taysom Hill over backup quarterback Jameis Winston in that game in place of the injured Drew Brees, but ultimately the decision probably didn’t matter, as the Saints won that game primarily with their defense, holding a capable Falcons offense to a 23.73% first down rate that is among the worst single week marks in the league this season. The Saints then got another defensive led victory over a Broncos team that literally didn’t have a quarterback last week, so it’s safe to say the jury is still out on Hill as an NFL quarterback. 

The Saints have arguably the best defense in the NFL, but defensive play tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offensive play and the Saints aren’t healthy on defense either, with a pair of key players in cornerback Janoris Jenkins and defensive end Marcus Davenport picking up new injuries that will cause them to miss this game. If the Saints’ defense isn’t as dominant as they’ve been recently, the Falcons have a good chance to pull off this upset, especially since the Saints’ offense is also missing a key player beyond Brees, with stud left tackle Terron Armstead out for the second straight week. Meanwhile, the Falcons will have a key player in Julio Jones back from injury after missing the last game and a half, including the majority of the first matchup between these two teams two weeks ago.

The Saints are in a little bit better of a spot, with only an easy trip to Philadelphia on deck, while the Falcons are coming off of a huge upset victory over the Raiders, which typically tends to be a bad betting spot (teams are 32-44 ATS after a home upset victory by 17 points or more as underdogs of 3 points or more), but it’s hard to see the Falcons looking past a huge divisional rival that just beat them recently, so they should be mostly focused for this one. 

The line did move significantly from New Orleans -3.5 on the early line last week to 2.5 this week, a significant swing considering 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal, but this line has crept back up to a field goal in some places, and if we can get a good +3 before gametime, I will probably end up betting on it. The money line is worth a bet as well at +130 because this game should be considered about a toss up.

Atlanta Falcons 24 New Orleans Saints 23 Upset Pick +130

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +2.5

Confidence: Low

New Orleans Saints at Denver Broncos: 2020 Week 12 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (8-2) at Denver Broncos (4-6)

Sean Payton is getting a lot of credit for starting Taysom Hill over Jameis Winston in a 24-9 win over the Falcons, but the decision probably didn’t matter, as that win was really more about the Saints’ defense, which held a decent Falcons offense to just a 23.72% first down rate. That allowed the Saints to run the run heavy offense they wanted to run, which allowed Taysom Hill to avoid being exposed as a passer. The jury is still out on Hill as a starting quarterback, going into just his second career start, but there’s no denying the talent on the rest of this team, and, even with Hill being a questionable starting quarterback, the Saints still rank 6th in my roster rankings. 

In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Saints rank 3rd at +4.15% and are the only team in the league to rank in the top-10 in first down rate over expected on offense (4th at +2.48%) and on defense (8th at -1.67%). That’s despite the fact that the Saints had a lot of injury problems even when Brees was in the lineup, with top wide receiver Michael Thomas (6 games missed), talented defensive linemen Marcus Davenport (4 games) and David Onyemata (1 game), starting cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins (2 games) and Marshon Lattimore (2 games), starting tight end Jared Cook (1 game), and #2 wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (2 games) all missing time with injury earlier in the year and having since returned.

Hill is unlikely to be exposed this week either, with the Saints being 6-point road favorites in Denver. The Broncos rank 30th in first down rate over expected at -4.27% and have one of the most turnover prone quarterbacks in the league under center in Drew Lock, so I would expect them to have a very tough time moving the ball against a Saints defense that is legitimately one of the best in the NFL, which would allow the Saints to run their offense the way they want to run it again this week. 

The Broncos do have a strong defense, ranking 3rd in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.15%, but they’re missing one of the top defensive players in defensive tackle Shelby Harris and defensive play tends to be much more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis than offense, so the Broncos’ defense is unlikely to be as reliably good as their offense is reliably bad. The Saints are a balanced team that is still one of the better teams in the league without Brees and they’re on an impressive run right now, winning 7 straight since starting 1-2, something they seem to do every season, going 89-57-7 ATS in weeks 3-17 since 2010, as opposed to 4-17-1 ATS in weeks 1-2.

The Saints are also in a better spot than the Broncos, who have to turn around and play another tough game against a Chiefs team that has dominated their division in recent years and that blew them out earlier this season, while the Saints only have a rematch against a Falcons team that they just beat easily last week, so they should be fully focused. The Broncos are 13-point underdogs on the early line in Kansas City and teams cover at just a 37.5% rate all-time before being double digit underdogs.

We’re not getting line value with the Saints as 6-point favorites, as New Orleans -6 is right where I have this line calculated, but the Broncos have some key offensive players that seem legitimately questionable in wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, right tackle Demar Dotson, and right guard Graham Glasgow, who would all be big absences if they were unable to go. Depending on what happens with the Broncos’ injury report, I may decide to place a bet on the Saints, especially if this line drops back down to 5.5, where it was on the early line last week. Even if not, the Saints should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Update: Saints left tackle Terron Armstead is going to be out after testing positive for COVID on Saturday, which is a big blow for a Saints offense against a tough Broncos pass rush. Meanwhile, all three of the Broncos questionable players are expected to play. Despite that, this line has gone up to 6.5 in favor of the Saints in some places. Given all of that, I’m changing this pick to the Broncos. This is a no confidence pick because of the bad spot that the Broncos are in, but my calculated line is now New Orleans -4.5, so this line is off. The Saints should still be able to win this game, but it would be hard to lay this many points with them on the road without Brees and Armstead against a team that isn’t terrible.

Update: Losing Terron Armstead to a positive COVID test the day before the game was a big blow for the Saints, but that’s nothing compared to the Broncos’ situation, as somehow they couldn’t manage to keep their four quarterbacks separate and, as a result, will have to be without all of their quarterbacks this week, with Jeff Driskel testing positive and their other three quarterbacks being close contacts. Instead, the Broncos will have to turn to an undrafted rookie practice squad wide receiver who averaged 5.99 yards per attempt on 251 passes and 4.69 yards per carry on 186 carries as a dual threat quarterback at Wake Forest from 2015 to 2018 before converting to a wide receiver in his final collegiate season in 2019. As a result, this line has ballooned from 6.5 to 14.5.

This is an unprecedented situation so it’s hard to say this with confidence, but that seems like an overreaction. The Broncos’ quarterback play had already been terrible this season and extreme run heavy offenses have had more success than you’d think in the modern NFL. The Broncos still have a great defense and, even with their quarterbacks set to the lowest possible value, I still have the Broncos ahead of the Jets, Bengals, and Jaguars in my roster rankings. My calculated line is Denver +7.5, so we seem to be getting significant line value with them at Denver +14.5. I say seem to be because, again, this is a highly unprecedented situation, so it’s tough to know how to address it. The Broncos should be able to cover that huge spread in what should be a low scoring game overall (teams are 30-20 ATS as underdogs of 14 or more in a game with a total of 39 or less), but I’m not sure if I actually want to bet any money on it. Maybe I’ll be bolder before gametime. For now, it’s a low confidence pick.

Update: I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’m going to bet on a team that doesn’t have a quarterback. This line has ballooned to 16.5 in some places. With the total at 36.5, the Broncos have a presumed total of 10 points in this game, but they have a decent running game, offensive line, and kicking game, especially at home with the elevation, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Broncos exceed that total.  They would just need to bust one long run and kick a couple of field goals. The Panthers hit that total exactly in 2006 when they ran 52 times for 183 yards in 10-3 win over the Falcons in a game in which they attempted just 7 passes and frequently played without a quarterback on the field.

Even if the Broncos can only hit to 10, the Saints will still need to get to 27 to cover this spread, which is going to be a tough task without their starting quarterback and left tackle against a good defense in a game that figures to have a very slow pace. I mentioned earlier that big favorites typically have trouble covering in games with big totals, but a team being favored this many with this small of a total almost never happens and teams are 1-4 ATS in this spot over the past thirty years. This is a highly unprecedented situation so it’s hard to be too confident, but the Broncos should be a reasonable safe bet at this number.

New Orleans Saints 20 Denver Broncos 10

Pick against the spread: Denver +16.5

Confidence: Medium

Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints: 2020 Week 11 NFL Pick

Atlanta Falcons (3-6) at New Orleans Saints (7-2)

I have been saying all season that I was planning on betting the Saints pretty consistently once they finally got healthy because they were my pre-season #1 team in my roster rankings and because they typically shake off slow starts, going 4-17-1 ATS in weeks 1-2 since 2010 and 88-57-7 ATS in weeks 3-17. The results were great once the Saints were finally all healthy, including a blowout victory in Tampa Bay, but it lasted less than six quarters before Drew Brees suffered a significant rib and lung injury that now has him sidelined for at least three weeks. The Saints were still able to close out the 27-13 victory over the 49ers and they still have a very talented and most healthy roster around the quarterback, but their projection obviously takes a big hit without their signal caller.

In Brees’ absence last week, former Buccaneers starter and current Saints backup Jameis Winston played most of the snaps, playing 34 snaps total, while hybrid player Taysom Hill played 22, and Winston also attempted all 10 of the Saints’ non-Drew Brees pass attempts, but the Saints seem to be throwing everyone a curveball and going with Hill for his first career start. There have been varying reports of how much the Saints plan to use both quarterbacks, from Hill playing all game, to Winston and Hill splitting time based on certain packages, but it’s clear the Saints plan to use Hill more than they’ve ever used him before, particularly as a passer. Hill has just 18 career regular season pass attempts and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he exceeded that total in this game alone.

The big question is whether that would be a good thing for the Saints or if they would be better served using their two quarterbacks like they did in the second half last week. Hill has made some big passing plays downfield in his career, but he’s never shown consistent accuracy, he has rarely played as a traditional drop back passer outside of the pre-season, and he’s also had some fumbling problems this season. His athleticism will obviously help him, but he’s a 30-year-old quarterback who has never started and didn’t show much as a passer in college, so this move could easily backfire or cause the Saints to have a mid-game pivot to Winston playing more. Hill will have plenty of talent around him, but this Saints passing game takes a big hit with him starting compared to Brees or even compared to Winston.

The Falcons, meanwhile, are relatively healthy coming off of a bye and, even though they haven’t played particularly well this season compared to their easy schedule, ranking 26th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -1.58%, they could easily be 5-4 or 6-3 if not for blowing three nearly impossible to blow leads. They’re also more talented on paper than the statistics suggest they’ve played thus far and could underachieve less going forward, especially since they seem to be playing better since firing Dan Quinn and going with interim head coach Raheem Morris. 

My roster rankings have these teams about even, so with the Saints having minimal fans in attendance for this one, we’re getting good value with the Falcons as more than a field goal underdogs at +3.5. The Saints could still pull out the victory, but about 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less, and I would expect this one to be a close one either way, so the Falcons are worth a bet.

Update: Marshon Lattimore is out for the Saints, despite practicing all week in limited capacity. Lattimore hasn’t played that well this year, so his absence doesn’t move the needle in this game as much as you’d think, but it’s more good news for Atlanta bettors, especially since the line has stabilized at +3.5, rather than dropping to 3.

New Orleans Saints 27 Atlanta Falcons 26

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +3.5

Confidence: Medium

San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints: 2020 Week 10 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (4-5) at New Orleans Saints (6-2)

The Saints started the season 1-2, but I was never that concerned. The Saints typically start slow, going 4-17-1 ATS in week 1 and 2 since 2010, as opposed to 87-57-2 ATS in weeks 3-17, and, while it didn’t seem likely that the Saints would go on a run until they got key players back from injury, most notably #1 wide receiver Michael Thomas, I always expected them to go on a run at some point and to be betting them heavily over that stretch. In Thomas’ first game back since week 1, last week in Tampa Bay against the Buccaneers, the Saints rolled over one of the best teams in the league, winning the first down rate battle by 8.73% in a 38-3 win.

Thomas wasn’t the primary reason for their victory, but he’s obviously one of the top wide receivers in the league and this is such a complete team that Thomas doesn’t necessarily need to dominate every game. In addition to Thomas’ return, the Saints have also gotten back defensive end Marcus Davenport (4 games missed), defensive tackle David Onyemata (1 game), cornerback Janoris Jenkins (2 games), cornerback Marshon Lattimore (1 game), tight end Jared Cook (1 game), and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (2 games) in recent weeks.

Despite all of the players who have missed time for this team thus far, the Saints rank 3rd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +3.65% and, now healthy, my roster rankings have them as the #1 overall team in the league, as they were coming into this season. This line has shifted from favoring the Saints by 6.5 points on the early line last week to 9.5 this week, in the wake of the Saints’ blowout win and the 49ers’ big loss to the Packers, but I think we’re still getting good line value.

The 49ers are in slightly better shape than last week, but they are still missing starting quarterback Jimmy Garroppolo, running backs Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert, and Jeff Wilson, top wide receiver Deebo Samuel, stud tight end George Kittle, their top-2 centers Weston Richburg and Ben Garland, their top-2 edge rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, their top outside cornerback Richard Sherman, their top slot cornerback K’Waun Williams, rotational defensive linemen Ezekiel Ansah and Solomon Thomas, and starting safety Jaquiski Tartt. 

Missing all those players, the 49ers rank just 21st in my roster rankings and I have the Saints calculated at -12. The Saints are also in a good spot with only another easy matchup against the Falcons on deck, as favorites of 6+ are 52-33 ATS since 2018 before being favorites of 6+ again the following week, which the Saints almost definitely will be. The 49ers have double digit losses in three of their past five games, as injuries have piled up and the schedule has gotten tougher, and I would expect this to be another double digit loss. I don’t like the Saints quite as much at -10, but at -9.5, I like the Saints a good amount.

New Orleans Saints 30 San Francisco 49ers 17

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -9.5

Confidence: High